This past weekend’s attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil refineries has deepened tensions in the region. In response to their on-going war with the Saudis, the Houthi rebels of Yemen have announced responsibility. But it sounds as though no one is listening to the Houthi. The blame is being almost entirely attributed to the Houthi supporters, Iran.
Whether it was the Houthi using Iranian drones and missiles or if it was Iran acting on their behalf is the subject of much debate. Having been embroiled in a war with Saudi Arabia since 2015, it’s thought that the Houthi rebels have missiles that could “sink a Navy warship.”
In 2015, shortly after the conflict began, Yemeni sailors used recovered missiles to fire on the Saudi-led coalition. If one is to believe official reports from the Houthi controlled Yemeni capital of Sana’a, an attack from October of 2015 “destroyed” Saudi navy tanker Yunbou.
Shortly after, pro-Houthi rebels targeted either the Saudi tanker Boraida or the Egyptian navy warship identified as Al Mahrousa. According to The National Interest, “neither the Yunbou nor Boraida was damaged” and the Al Mahrousa was a century and a half-year-old presidential yacht that hasn’t been “anywhere near Yemen in years.” While there is no doubt the rebels have artillery, the degree of candour during wartime is suspect.
The Saudis and Americans aren’t buying that it was the Houthi acting alone. Since the attack on their oil facilities on 14 September, both countries have become increasingly confident it was Iranian based. They claim that the Iranians launched a “complex missile and drone attack” from the southern part of Iran.
In defence of the Saudis, President Donald Trump said that the US was “locked and loaded” and prepared to go to war with Iran. Absent of a smoking gun that indicts the Iranians, the presidents’ comments did nothing more than agitate the already strained relationship between the US and Iran.
It’s worth noting that this is now the second time President Trump has threatened war with Iran since July.
According to National Public Radio in America, US Defense Department officials have said they have satellite imagery detecting Iran readying drones and missiles. The department has not yet provided the satellite photos. The officials do point out that the imagery and activity are just “circumstantial evidence” that the strike originated in Iran. Because it’s believed that the drones and missiles used for the attack were more intricate than initially thought this strongly suggests Iranian involvement.
Without any empirical evidence, and taking its lead from the top, the US has beefed up its rhetoric. US Energy Secretary Rick Perry said, “The United States wholeheartedly condemns Iran’s attacks on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and we call on other nations to do the same.” In a briefing on Capitol Hill, President Trump’s special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, said that this attack was Saudi Arabia’s “9/11”. And after landing in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted that Saturday’s incident was indeed an “Iranian attack.” Then he doubled down on the bombast by calling it an “act of war.”
However, unlike the US, England has not gone so far as to blame Iran for the attack. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has condemned the act but called for a “diplomatic response” to the attack.
On 18 September, the Saudi Defense Ministry held a press conference, displaying “material evidence” proving Iranian Involvement. The evidence they provided included remains of missiles, shredded metal and blown up bits and pieces from the oil production plants.
Officially, Iran has denied any responsibility for the attacks.
Because much of this appears to be playing out over Twitter, Iranian political advisor Hesameddin Ashena tweeted in response, “The press conference proved that Saudi Arabia knows nothing about where the missiles and drones were made or launched from and failed to explain why the country’s defence system failed to intercept them.”
Also taking to Twitter was Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, replying to the accusations, who criticized the US saying, “Just imagine: The US isn’t upset when its allies mercilessly BOMB babies in Yemen for over 4 years-with its arms and its military assistance. But it is terribly upset when the victims react the only they can-against the aggressor’s OIL refineries.”
While there is no doubt that Iran supports the Houthi rebels in Yemen, the degree to which that support run is questionable. While Saudi’s claim that the Houthi are Iranian proxies, there is scant evidence to suggest that Iran provides anything other than tangential support. In a 2016 report, Thomas Juneau of the University of Ottawa said: “there is limited hard evidence that Tehran has provided them with material support.”
Saudi Arabia is America’s strongest ally in the region so it’s not surprising President Trump has chosen to stand by Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, or MbS, and the Saudis. In all honesty, Trump appears to be volunteering the US to stand in for the Saudis. Initially, Trump’s weekend “locked and loaded” tweet strongly suggested he would send in American troops if the Saudi’s asked. And then having his top diplomat refer to the incident as an “act of war” certainly throws another log on the diplomatic pyre between Iran and the United States.
While President Trump has not closed the book on a military strike against Iran, he has since tempered himself by saying that he had not “promised” the Saudis anything. He also went on to say that he will “sit down with the Saudis and work something out.”
In the meantime, Trump will use this event to flex his “maximum pressure” policy and penalize Iran for their alleged involvement in the attack. On Wednesday 18 September, he ordered new sanctions on top of the already crippling ones that are strangling the Iranian economy.
It was thought that President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani might sit down for a talk next week when the United Nations General Assembly gathers in New York City. That now seems unlikely. According to Iranian state broadcaster IRIB, President Rouhani said, “Instead of creating a positive atmosphere, the American diplomats are trying to exert maximum slander on Iran with baseless and meaningless accusations.”
Whoever perpetrated the attacks on 14 September successfully crippled more than half of Saudi Arabia’s oil-exporting capability. Its effect on the world market was immediate and profound. After an initial surge of almost 20%, oil prices fell on 16 September. This accounted for the largest intra-day jump since the Gulf War in 1990-91. Acknowledging this and to assuage the world market, the Saudi’s have said that oil production will be restored to their pre-attack levels “in the coming weeks.”
As of this writing, the evidence shows that Iranian involvement in the attack is unclear. There is no denying their support of the Houthi but whether that support includes arms like specialized drones and missiles is not known. But that has not stopped the Americans from stepping onto the bully pulpit as a stand-in for Saudi Arabi and condemning Iran as the sole culprit.
It took 41 years to get clarity on the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The event that launched America into a full-blown war with Vietnam. When it was all said and done, the incident proved to be nothing more than “material misrepresentation by the US government” to justify going to war.
We can only hope this incident doesn’t play out the same way: and that it doesn’t take as long to find out who is responsible for the attacks on the Saudi Arabian oil refineries…or lead to yet another war costing far too many lives.